I can't help wondering whether the political strategists at the White House are ready for what I think is probably going to rise right up out of the sunrise one fine morning soon and knock their present, and highly successful, political strategy into oblivion.
As this is being written there is talk of a release of the hostages from Iran -- soon. Soon apparently means not months or even weeks, but perhaps even before this can get into print. Obviously, abolhassan Bani-Sadr is rapidly getting control of the machinery of government in Iran and getting himself into a position to get the hostages away from the militants who have holding them in defiance of that government. Mr. Bani-Sadr knows that the taking of the hostages was a mistake, and the holding of them intolerable, and contrary to the interests of his country.
There is as yet no hard evidence of an early about-face by the Soviets on their capture of Afghanistan. And it remains a necessary working assumption in Western foreign offices that they will retain effective control over Afghanistan for a long time to come. But there are ways and means by which they could defuse the "Afghan crisis" without necessarily letting go of effective control.
The biggest worry arising in Washington out of that crisis was the possibility that those Soviet troops might keep right on going from Afghanistan into either Pakistan or Iran, or both. Anxiety about this has been stimulated by reports circulated by the State Department in Washington of Soviet maneuvers in the southern Soviet province of Azerbaijan which lies just above the Iranian border.
Suppose that instead of brandishing maneuvers on the southern downhill side of the Caucasus Mountains they sent those troops back into barracks, then withdrew some of the 100,000 soldiers they now have in Afghanistan, and also launched a propaganda peace offensive. That would defuse the Afghan crisis. And of course one cannot rule out the possibility, no matter how remote, that they just might bring most of those troops home and let local political nature take its own course.
The combination of Iran and Afghan cirses have provided Mr. Carter with the finest political vehicle any president has had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1944 by visiting a few military bases and arms factories. That campaign is the model Mr. Cater has been following since the seisure of the hostages.
But what happens to Mr. Carter's strategy if those crises disappear?
First, he will have to leave the White House and get out on the stump and Campaign.
Second, as he campaigns he will run into some backlash from the crises. When war seemed just around the corner Mr. Carter committed himself to rearmament and revival of registration for military service. He has been accused of "overreacting." That accusation rolled off harmlessly during the crisis. It would begin to hurt him once the hostages are safely some and the Soviets no longer seem to be on their way to the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Hormuz.
Third, public and voter attention would probably swing back to the uncomfortable fact for Mr. Carter that the inflation rate is higher than under his Republican predecessors with no diminution in sight.
Mr. Carter has been remarkably effective as a leader in time of international crisis. But earlier he had not done nearly as well when the state of the economy was the top preoccupation of his countrymen. He had nearly three years of trying to do something effective to reduce dependence on imported oil and harness the inflation before his political fortunes were revived by foreign crisis. If and when he is again back in charge of the same old efforts to cut down on oil imports and contain inflation, will his image of leadership suffer?
It is interesting to notice the gradual change in the cartoon portrayals of Mr. Carter. In the pre-crisis days he was usually portrayed as a Boy Scout with all sorts of good intentions, and little if any effectiveness. Since the crisis broke, and particularly since he promised to defend the Gulf, the cartoonists have given him stronger features and credit for some effectiveness.
He will get some credit for ending the crises when they are over (if they are). The safe return of the hostages is bound to help the man in the White House who managed the strategy which got them home alive. And if the Soviets withdraw (even partially) he will be credited by some for having brought it about by his firmness. Still, his political advisers will have a different task -- keeping him on the front pages as the fearless leader.